Sunday, January 14, 2018

Light Up the Lamp

Still using the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh to inspire my classes and blog this week:

The word "mindfulness" and the admonishment to "be mindful," are now well-incorporated into popular culture. That's not a bad thing, but like any expression, overuse can lead to a loss of true meaning. So what does it really mean, to be mindful; to practice mindfulness?

Keeping it simple, we can say that to be mindful means:

To pay attention to what is happening in this moment, right now; to pay attention to what you are doing, what you are experiencing, what you are thinking and what you are feeling. Right. Now.

It's the same thing we mean when we talk of being present or being awake. How much of our lives do we miss out on because our thoughts are engaged with past events or with possible future ones? Have you ever sat through a magnificent concert, only to realize afterward that you "missed" the whole thing because, although you were physically there, your mind was somewhere else? On the other hand, have you ever been at an event of family or friends and had a moment when you suddenly stopped and looked and listened, and realized in that very moment, how wonderful the chaos of it all was, and how much you loved these people and were grateful to be among them? That's a mindful moment.

And the benefit of mindfulness is not only being present in our lives, it also helps us avoid causing suffering for ourselves and others. When we are disconnected from our lives, from ourselves, we react instead of respond; we say and do things that we later regret. We hurt others, and in doing so, we harm ourselves.

Most of us, much of the time, are not very present, not very mindful. A typical example is when we are in conversation with another person. Often, we don't give them our full attention, don't let them finish what they are saying, or even listen to them at all! What are we doing instead? Usually, we are thinking about what we are going to say, or about how quickly we can end the conversation. It happened to me just yesterday. I felt myself starting to pull away from a conversation while the other person was still talking - as though I had something better and more important to do - which I didn't! Luckily, I had moment of mindfulness, in which I saw what I was doing. That moment of awareness allowed me to change course and I engaged with her fully, making eye contact, listening and responding to her in a way that showed that I had been paying attention to what she said.

So how do we become more mindful, perhaps even making it our new normal? As Thich Nhat Hanh says, the oil of our lamp of mindfulness is "our breath, our steps and our smile." In physical yoga practice (asana) and in meditation, we bring our awareness to the breath. This simple act allows us to focus the mind in one place. We choose the breath because it is easy to find and always available to us, and also because it offers us a physical connection to our awareness - we can feel it.

With practice, this becomes a tool we can use to become more present in our busy lives, not just something we do during yoga practice. Remembering to feel our breath connects us back to ourselves, puts us back in our bodies and in our hearts. It slows us down, giving us the opportunity to consciously make a better choice about our next step. In my case, I was given the chance to choose to be respectful of another human being, rather than dismissive.

In a stressful moment, say, in the checkout line at the grocery store on a day when you are on a tight schedule, and find yourself behind someone who hasn't quite figured out how to use the new chip credit cards, your impulse might be to roll your eyes and cross your arms and mutter some complaint under your breath. You might find yourself getting more and more worked up. Or, you might remember to feel your breath. And in that moment when you connect to your breath, there is a pause, a pause during which your perspective might shift. That pause might be just enough to allow you to see the confused person with compassion, to feel empathy for him or her - we have all been that person in some situation. And maybe your next step would be to smile and even offer to help.

The oil of that lamp is our breath, our steps and our smile. Our practice is to light up the lamp.

In my previous post, Take One Step, I shared another Thich Nhat Hanh quote, in which he advised us to take just one mindful step, and if we can take one, we can take another and another. This is what he means. Step one, come back to your breath. During that momentary pause, you can make a conscious choice - a mindful choice - about your next step, one that you won't regret later. And don't forget the smile.

1 comment:

  1. I have one of his books. I believe in being mindful. It brings a sense of peacefulness.


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